Freihofer Jazz Fest Burns In Saratoga
Searing temperatures in the upper 90s were not the only thing that burned during the two-day Freihofer Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, the 28th edition produced at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by George Wein and his Festival Productions crew.
This year's festival was not resplendent with the biggest "star names in jazz though there were some but the music featured many great musicians and many of them young. There was something for just about everyone, except for a blues band, which is normally a part of the festivities. To offset that, however, there were no pop acts that have nothing to do with jazz. That, also, had become commonplace over the years.
On two stages, 23 bands performed, from smooth jazz types like saxophonist Boney James to the venerable Lou Donaldson and the American icon Dave Brubeck. In-the-pocket swing like John Pizzarelli, virtuoso stylings like the Bela Fleck-Jean Luc Ponty-Stanley Clarke formation, diverse vocals of Lizz Wright, Cassandra Wilson, Al Jarreau and Gretchen Parlato and cutting-edge post-bop music by the likes of Rudresh Mahanthappa and Kurt Rosenwinkel all got a chance to shine.
And among the bands to shine the brightest involved piano players: the legendary McCoy Tyner with Ravi Coltrane, the wizardry of Frenchman Jean-Michel Pilc and the profundity of Mulgrew Miller, who appeared in trumpeter Terell Stafford's quartet. And Latin bands like El Echo and a quintet led by Dafnis Prieto also kicked ass.
El Echo opened the weekend at the smaller gazebo stage on the SPAC grounds, led by drummer Guillermo Nojechowicz, the band dished out a tasty set of Latin music that showed the flexible voice of Kim Nazarian, also one of the four New York Voices. The band was polished and classy, and it was a pleasure to find the outstanding harmonica player Hendrick Meurkens offering his own sweet way to the festivities. On the main stage the Motet was somewhat disappointing. The band's horns and guitar play over layers of different rhythms, but somehow it sounded sterile and at time almost like "smooth stuff.
The gazebo stage is perennially a highlight throughout the fest. Terrell Stafford's group was an example, with the trumpeter showing why he's considered one of the best out there, his chops strong and his ideas creative and exploratory, his tone clear and bright. The band did music from his last CD New Beginnings. Miller, a pianist's pianist, was stellar as well. He's always both tasty and inventive; overwhelming in technique, yet managing not to overwhelm the listener.
Gretchen Parlato, whose first CD is due out soon, showed a soft and subtle style of jazz singing. Not a diva like, say Diane Reeves, her tone is soft, but she uses it to great advantage, getting to the emotion of the song in a different way. Nuance is a word that many jazz musicians should learn. (Unlike Trio!, the Fleck-Ponty-Clarke group that is more of a "look what I can do aggregation as they blared from the main stage on Sunday). Parlato performed standards like "Skylark, but mostly took songs from Latin America, mostly Brazil. "Doralice was softly swinging and her lyric to Wayne Shorter's "Juju was a delight, and delivered in a poignant fashion, "...look to your heart and you will find the truth/ its Footprints will leave us to find/ our own voices in our own times. . Sweet.
Pilc's trio was a gas. He approaches the instrument differently than most players, and the interplay with his trio, particularly drummer Ari Hoenig, was spot on. They were experimental with rhythms, cadence and dynamics, but always on the same page. A band, not a group of all-stars. Pilc has startling technique, but far- reaching influences. He played as softly as one can play at times, and at others literally attacked the piano with percussive pounding with two hands. The arrangements were all fresh, especially the closer "All Blues that took an odd tempo and staccato phrasing that gave the chestnut a pleasurable spin.
Rudresh Mahanthappa has been gaining steam in New York City and his set was intense. His playing is Bird meets Trane, in a sense, but he is, of course, developing his own voice. The songs were all from his Mother Tongue recording. While Mahanthappa burned, pianist Vijay Iyer was both precocious and searching. The two are longtime collaborators and they have a great way between them. The band cooks.
Prieto is a tremendous Cuban drummer who has been landing great gigs out of New York City, with the likes of Michel Camilo and the Caribbean Jazz Project. His own quintet was superb. As he laid down polyrhythms and exotic beats, the wonderful Brian Lynch blew his usual stellar stories with a big fat trumpet sound. Yousvany Terry complimented him well on tenor sax. Smokin' set.
Kurt Rosenwinkel's group played both stages to good response. His inventive, curious way and clear intonation of notes was a refreshing breath. The band did standards like "Stablemates and a moving "Round Midnight as well as original music. Mark Turner's tenor sax blended well. He has quietly become a player to be heard and accounted for.
Tyner and company set the standard on the main stage, playing propulsive and high-charged music, pushed by the dexterous and sometimes percussive hands of the pianist. Coltrane wailed over the rhythm section, soaring and screeching at times, and sailing calmly at others. He seems to keep getting better as his last two CD attest. And how great must it have been for Stafford to have Mulgrew in his band early in the day, only to change clothes and go play with Tyner later. He is blowing as great as ever these days. Fiery music.
Donaldson, the 70-something bebopper, laid out what you'd expect. Blues infected jazz that made him a big-timer on the original Blue Note label in the 1950s. He chose songs from the Charlie Parker songbook, as well as his trademark "Blues Walk and funky "Alligator Boogaloo. He also blew some of the best pure blues heard at the fest. His guitarist, Richard Johnston, was equally dexterous and was an excellent foil to the sax.
The other "old man, Brubeck, 84, did his usual solid job with the folks he's played with for a long time now. People may miss the Paul Desmond sound, but Bobby Militello's sax work is strong and he negotiates the Brubeck songbook expertly.
As for vocalists, Lizz Wright's set was good. The more she goes on, her beautiful voice seems to be more parts folk and R&B than jazz. but she's interesting. Most of her selections were mellow, from her new Dream Wide Awake disk. But she has a real presence and it will be interesting to see how this still-new songstress develops. Wilson and Jarreau sang with the same band in a long festival-ending set, as did Boney James. Wilson is her usual exploring, sultry self, but is better in her own setting. Jarreau has a feel for jazz as well as pop, but his style is way too over-the-top for these ears. Stop trying so hard. James is funky, with a good tone. It might be nice to hear him apply himself to other music.
Botti, a "smooth player also, has tried to apply himself to other stuff with his last CD, When I Fall In Love. It's not a bad accounting, but he'll never be mistaken for Lee Morgan. hiring the incredible Billy Kilson (late of the first-rate Dave Holland band) on drums is a good move. But the basic rhythm of the arrangements was unexciting. Still, not a bad performance. Pizzarelli did his usual good job of covering stands and is still doing selections from his all-Beatles Cd of a few years back. He has a pleasant voice and swings like mad. Sometimes his vocals, not particularly exciting, overshadow the fact that he plays a mean guitar.
David Sanchez, a challenging, exploring and very creative saxophonist, did a fine job with his working band. Days before the festival, he bemoaned the fact that there is too much pressure for him to be booked with "all-star bands with other "name players. He would like to develop a sound, "a band that sounds like a band, and he's right on target with this group, as the new CD Coral will attest. Sanchez has a gorgeous sound and an open spirit that comes out in his music.
Festival clunker of the year: You could go 23 lifetimes and never meet a single eunuch. On stage Saturday night, they managed to get four saxman Richard Elliot, trumpeter Rick Braun, guitarist Jonathan Butler and guitarist Peter White all in one place to blare out dentist office music. Amazing? Well... no. Cloying? Indeed.
But the picnic/party festival remains a treat for upstate New York and those attending, in between struggling with heat that was more like Miami, could find much to enjoy and in varying styles. The SPAC grounds are always graced by this weekend of art. And vice versa.